New Boeing F-15EX takes first flight, soon will head to Eglin Air Force Base

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — The latest version of the venerable F-15, a fighter jet that first flew in 1972, had a successful first flight Tuesday and will be on its way to Eglin Air Force Base within a matter of weeks for additional testing and evaluation.

The first F-15EX built by the Boeing aerospace company took off from St. Louis Lambert International Airport and returned there 90 minutes later. During the flight, a Boeing test pilot checked out the multiple-role jet's avionics (flight data instrumentation), its advanced electronics and other systems, and the software that helps control the jet and its systems.

While the F-15EX was in the air, a test team on the ground collected data from the aircraft in real time. That team "confirmed that the aircraft performed as planned," according to a Boeing news release.

The Boeing F-15EX, the latest version of the long-serving fighter jet, took its first flight Tuesday from St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri. Two of the new aircraft will be on their way soon to Eglin Air Force Base for initial developmental and operational testing, which is expected to last 18 months. Eglin eventually will host eight of the new aircraft, with delivery of the remaining six slated to begin sometime after October of next year.

“Today’s successful flight proves the jet’s safety and readiness to join our nation’s fighter fleet,” Prat Kumar, Boeing's F-15 program manager, said in the news release. The successful first flight showed that the F-15EX is "capable of incorporating the latest advanced (electronic) battle management systems, sensors and weapons," Kumar added.

The fighter’s digital backbone — it has an all-new digital cockpit, modern radar and the world's fastest mission computer — means that it can serve as a "test bed" for the insertion of technology developed in the future, according to the Boeing release. Much of that testing work likely will be done at Eglin or by Eglin-headquartered units.

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In July of last year, the Air Force awarded Boeing a $1.2 billion contract for the first lot of eight F-15EX aircraft, all of which will come to Eglin. The aircraft that flew Tuesday and a second F-15EX are scheduled to arrive sometime before the end of March. The remaining six will come to Eglin sometime after October of next year.

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Overall, Boeing could end up building as many as 144 F-15EX jets, but it's not yet clear where any aircraft beyond the first eight jets will be based. Those decisions will be made through the Air Force's strategic basing process, an in-depth review and decision matrix.

Eglin has been preparing for months for the arrival of the F-15EX. The 40th Flight Test Squadron will take possession of the first F-15EX, with the second jet going to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

The 40th Flight Test Squadron is part of the 96th Test Wing, the host unit at Eglin, while the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron is part of the Eglin-based 53rd Wing. Both squadrons have current responsibilities for testing and evaluation involving earlier versions of the F-15.

According to Eglin's public affairs office, aircrews and other personnel from both squadrons will work simultaneously on both the developmental testing and the operational testing of the F-15EX.

Developmental testing assesses an aircraft's capabilities and limitations to improve its performance. Operational testing involves placing an aircraft in a "combat relevant" environment to determine whether it performs as expected.

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The initial phase of F-15EX testing at Eglin will take about 18 months, according to the base public affairs office.

The Air Force awarded a $1.2 billion contract for eight F-15EX fighter aircraft in July of last year. The first of those aircraft, shown here under construction, had a successful first flight Tuesday. That aircraft and a second F-15EX will be at Eglin Air Force Base within the next few weeks to begin months of operational and developmental testing.

"Initial testing will focus on ensuring the software and avionics systems integrate well with the aircraft’s features like the advanced cockpit and controls," according to an Eglin news release issued when the Boeing contract was announced last year.

Selected airmen from the 96th Maintenance Group at Eglin have been undergoing classroom familiarization with the F-15EX, and will transfer to hands-on training when the first two aircraft arrive. Eventually, those airmen will become trainers for the maintenance group, according to Eglin public affairs.

Boeing personnel will train F-15EX aircrews, and an F-15EX flight simulator also will be available at Eglin.

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"The transition for aircrew and maintenance is much simpler since certain elements of the F-15 remain the same, with the biggest differences being engines, flight controls and displays," last July's news release from Eglin stated. "The intent is for all of the squadrons’ aircrew to be F-15EX trained."